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Ten Things You Need to Know to Freelance (and Keep Your Day Job)

Freelancing while on staff can lead to more money, better clips, and even a new job, but every opportunity has its risks, most notably losing your day job. Read on to learn from the mistakes and successes of our most byline-weary Edsters!

1. Never write for a direct competitor.
Though many corporations can be vague about their freelance policies, this rule remains consistent. If you’re working at Good Housekeeping, don’t freelance for Ladies Home Journal or All You. The same goes for niche publications. “At all of my magazine jobs, they said it was fine as long as the story wasn’t something we’d run in our own publication,” says Amy,* a midlevel editor at a weekly publication.

2. Avoid covering the same topic.
If you normally write beauty pieces, don’t freelance make-up tips anywhere else—even for a non-competitor. Susan, a midlevel editor at a national women’s lifestyle magazine, freelanced a piece about home decoration while normally covering relationships at her day job. “I felt like it didn’t conflict,” she says. Helen, an assistant editor working at a women’s magazine, agrees: “I would never ever use the same sources or PR people when I freelance.” Why? Because if they know where you work, they may mention that they spoke to you for a different magazine when they talk to one of your co-workers. They won’t do it maliciously, but the result could still be bad news for you.

3. Don’t misrepresent the brand.
All staff members represent the company they work for, from the clothing they wear to their online image. If you work for a teen magazine, avoid covering raunchy sex in your freelancing—especially if they are first-person accounts. Helen used to work for a conservative publication when she freelanced her first piece for a site known for its risqué personal essays. Her boss found out and wasn’t happy. “I was terrified about losing my job,” Helen says. Fortunately, the only retribution was a warning.

4. If all else fails, use a pseudonym.
If violating any of the rules noted above, go with a fake name. Helen continued writing personal stories under a different name and credits the switch for her current success. “I make more money freelancing than I do at my day job,” she says. But, she warns, be sure to be upfront about the pseudonym with the editors you’re freelancing for, because most don’t like using them.

5. Keep the freelancing gigs low-profile.
As tempting as it is to post your new fab byline on your Facebook page, the safer strategy is to keep your secondary work on the down-low. “The less people know the better,” Helen says. Especially if you’re at all concerned about getting caught or upsetting upper management.

6. If in trouble, use the time defense.
If a coworker mentions your newly published article in another magazine, remember that it takes six months minimum for monthlies to assign a story, edit it, and publish it. So you can always get away with saying that you began working on it before you started your current job. Julia, a senior editor at a women’s niche magazine, usually goes with this reply: “Oh, they finally ran that? I wrote that months and months ago!”

7. Your day job always comes first.
Never work on your freelance stories at your job! Besides being easily traceable, coworkers (and probably your boss) will notice. “I used to try to do phone interviews during lunch on my cell phone outside but it could get out of control with a phone call at eleven or a follow up at four,” says Amy. “One of my bosses knew I’d freelance at work and he made a joke of it, but it was embarrassing and a good wake-up call for me to stop.” And for pete’s sake: Don’t print out info for your freelance piece on your work printers. You know how easy it is for someone to pick up your print-outs!

8. Give up a weekend or two.
Try to keep any freelancing to only email during the week. Rather than meeting friends for brunch, you should use your free time for all the extra legwork. “Most experts are more than willing to talk to you on weekends or at night—they have jobs too!” Amy says.

9. If at all unsure, speak to your boss.
If you have no idea where you stand, it might be a good idea to ask permission. Helen scored a great byline with a major paper—sans pseudonym—because she gave her boss a head’s up about it; she was cool with it.

10. Keep your goals in sight.
Freelancing not only provides you with extra cash, but also gives you great networking opportunities. Amy got her current job because she had freelanced for the publication for years. The editor she worked with told her about the opening and put in “the best word for me ever,” Amy says. Helen freelances to gain a reputation as a writer. “The magazine community is so small that if you do a good job freelancing, people are going to be more willing to take a chance on you,” Helen said. “The more clips you have, the more reputable you sound.”

*All names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the speakers.

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One Response to Ten Things You Need to Know to Freelance (and Keep Your Day Job)

  1. Jenny June 19, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

    These are good tips but here are a few more:

    Be careful who you pitch to, especially when you’re just starting out and doing it via an email. I have freelanced from the start of my career and have numerous stories about publications taking my pitches and handing them to staff writers. It’s not a coincidence when you’re asked to submit a story idea or a full story and you see it live the next day.

    Beware of publications that want you to sign your copyrights away. If they are paying a significant amount of money and you’re writing on a subject you don’t care about, it could be worth it. But note, once you give your copyrights away that publication can sell your story to other publications and you will not see a dime.

    Have your own contract, especially when working with less known publications.

    Research publications before you pitch. There are a lot of forums out there where other freelancers write about their experiences. I applied to one large website which marketed itself as a pro-woman type of site. Emailed with one of their senior editors several times (a good sign) and felt comfortable writing several fresh stories for them, along with several researched pitches with pictures. Yes, they took my pitches and stories and I never heard back from them. Later found a forum that was filled of warnings about pitching for that site and payment issues. Lesson? Research the hell out of places before you waste your time.